Salvation is not a company

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 19/02/2017

Sul confine e oltre 05 rid"Workplace spirituality seems to be a significant new management paradigm that business executives can use to improve their organizations by increasing, among others, the levels of organizational commitment, satisfaction and performance of their employees."

Sofia Lupi, La spiritualità nelle organizzazioni (The Spirituality of Organisations)

In the 'spirituality market' the ancient 'Gresham's Law' is making a return: bad money drives out good money. This law made a re-appearance every time two types of currency were being handled in the streets: the good and the false type, neither of them easily recognizable as such. Bad money infested the streets and the squares, and within a short time the good type would disappear from circulation.

The meritocratic-capitalist religion which is more 'lightweight' and of a fast movement is displacing the traditional genuine faiths as it is replacing totemic cults by its major innovations. These in turn threaten to infect even the remnants of ancient faiths that get fascinated and seduced by the new cult. The first major operation of the latest generation of capitalism has been the reduction of religion and spirituality into merchandise. The second, very recent operation is a true masterpiece: making large enterprises the first consumers of these 'spiritual merchandise'.

Let's just think of corporate rites, the new fashion in large companies, where we find more and more liturgical forms and typical rituals of ancient idolatry. Working groups are left alone for a few days in the forests and deserts for collective initiations and 'team building'; increasingly bizarre role play games are used to enhance the team 'spirit'; 'escape room' sessions are held where people are locked in for a time to solve puzzles and manage to escape within a given time. Real social rites are replacing the exercises of 'trust' (deemed ancient now), where someone leaned and dropped backwards to show confidence in the other members of the group.

When, a few years ago, these adult games were introduced to some innovative companies, everyone took it a bit like a time for recreation, and we even had fun playing them. At some point, though, the game got out of hand, we stopped laughing and realised that it was all serious, very serious. And we believed it. We even believed in the traditional get-togethers, where all the employees were wearing the company uniform (or T-shirt) and singing the sad hymns of the company - all these are now replaced by more sophisticated liturgies. Among these is the 'company theatre', where employees act out plays that are written or reviewed by the consultants in order to sublimate work conflicts and frustrations. Or the so-called 'road shows', where top management goes to visit the departments and branches to meet their workers directly in their environment. Real pastoral visits, one could say, which serve as an alternative for ad limina visits.

No wonder, then, that a final frontier of large enterprises is the spirituality in management, which is experiencing a real boom nowadays. There is a multitude of conferences, courses and books on very fascinating topics like 'love and forgiveness in management', 'how to train spiritual leaders', 'interiority and leadership' and much more. And so the gurus of every ancient and modern 'religion' are invited in the company, as long as they are able to increase the 'spiritual capital' of enterprise, cultivating the corporate karma. 'Meditation rooms' are beginning to appear in company buildings where you can spend a few minutes (of a precise quota) to recover spiritual energy. The production of real liturgies and corporate prayers is also well in course, as a way of starting work meetings or the company 'spiritual retreats'. These ‘secular’ rites and liturgies are well known for a long time in the world of economy. But  they were secrets until recently, known by just a few people, and strongly opposed by the churches and the world of work. Today they are public, popular and praised by (almost) everyone.

One area where this wave of spirituality is particularly evident and dangerous is the variegated world of leadership. Leaders and leadership, expressions decorated with ever more creative adjectives, are becoming the first watchwords of this new religion, fitting perfectly with the meritocratic ideology. Words such as manager, executive, head of office have become old and outdated, tied to a capitalism that seems too trivial. This is why these new terms emerge (always pronounced in the sacred language English): now we have leaders. These, unlike the old leaders, must have charisma, charm, attractiveness. In new enterprises it is essential to obtain the consent of the soul and the heart, not just that of the contract, and only a leader can earn this type of commitment of the spirit. Because of the very nature of leadership, we cannot all be leaders. So consultants and professionals are called in who can recognize the signs of a call to leadership in workers. They go through selections, training and get started on their mission, which in its essence is to manipulate the consent of the people guided by them, leading them to give voluntary consent to the leader's proposals. The ultimate goal of the leader is in fact to achieve the deliberate and free commitment of followers to the group objectives, which are internalized and followed thanks to the ability and the charisma of the leader. It is the definitive end of hierarchy and coercion: the leader has the gift of transforming external orders in internal ones, where every follower, by adhering closely to the leader's directives obeys only to him/herself, realizing the greater autonomy of the worker-follower. The dream of a 'fraternal production system' is finally realized - it is no longer based on conflict and fight, but on the free and reciprocal consent of the heart.

Therefore, if we try to read between the lines of the newest theory and practice of leadership we discover, and sometimes we read, that the figure of the ideal leader is that of the prophet, that is, someone who is followed freely and joyfully because of the strength of his charisma, for his authority, for its spiritual charm. Someone who has the ability to internally convert his followers without the need for command or control, because workers internalize his word, becoming fully independent and a law unto themselves. And above all, they are happy to follow him.

The latest generation of leadership can therefore be seen as spiritual leadership, creating a new form of meritocracy: 'spiritual meritocracy' (Shawn van Valkenburgh). By putting together meritocracy and spirituality, this corporate new age of the third millennium is making a perfect implementation of the retributive-economic religion against which Job, the prophets and later Christianity had struggled with all their might. And what is shocking is that everything is happening not only in the silence of the world that is a friend of real work and the people, but also of a good part of the ecclesiastic world and, in general, of the 'true religions'. Among the gurus invited to speak about spirituality to the managers there are more and more monks and priests, and the number of leadership courses for pastors and 'leaders' of religious communities is increasing, organized and sold, of course, by the same consulting companies and business schools.

Unfortunately, the promoters and disseminators of these quasi-theories do not know that the biblical prophets and founders of authentic charismatic movements have never considered themselves as leaders. The most important prophets of the Bible (from Moses to Jeremiah) show resistance when they receive the call of God, because they do not feel to be leaders, let alone wanting to become one. The very thought of being leaders terrorizes them. However, where many men who longed to become leaders gathered spontaneously were the prophetic schools that were producing multitudes of ‘prophets by profession’ and, above all, many false prophets and charlatans. The first law that the great biblical wisdom left us reads: 'beware of those who present themselves as candidates to become prophets, because they are almost always false prophets', deceivers, or, we might say today, simply narcissists. History and real life tell us that you become a 'leader' not wanting to become one. But above all they tell us that when communities designed classes of leaders they ended up simply failing in the best case and forming monsters in the worst, even when they were driven by good intentions.

Only a few decades ago when the union tradition and the culture of real work were still alive and alert, these phenomena would be denounced as the worst abuses, they would be fought and, above all, ridiculed and mocked, this new sub-culture would be flooded and made to sink by disdain and laughter. Today, however, in the spiritual and ethical crisis in which we have sunk, these manipulations are presented as innovation, humanism, participatory governance and modernity, and are received with enthusiasm.

Today, we must ask businesses for more secularism, much more secularism. Let them do their job and resize their imperialist designs in the world and in the soul. Firms do not need either prophets or salvation, but they should leave more free space for us, a piece of free land where we can grow plants and flowers that we like. Companies can do many good things, but not all. If they honestly want to increase the welfare of their workers (and there are such), having understood that the cultivation of spiritual life makes them live better, companies should leave their workers adequate time to develop and cultivate these essential dimensions of life, but outside of the workplace. With their family, with their friends, with their communities. They should not seek a monopoly of lives and souls. The spirituality that is good and gives life requires more air than is possibly there in the offices, more sky than what you see from the windows of companies, more light than that of the LED lamps. And above all it needs two words which, after all, are one: freedom and gratuitousness. Art, faith and prayers are among the most beautiful and sublime human expressions if and because they are not finalized and they are nothing other than beauty, faith, prayer. The only end they can have is the infinite. But when we try to direct them, to finalise and to use them, these wonderful things become caricatures, toys, sometimes even monsters. Behind the offer and demand for spirituality that is emerging from capitalism there are certainly good intentions, mixed with a lot of manipulations and much ingenuity. But the most important effects in social and organizational realities are the unintentional and medium term ones. If today we underestimate the movement of company spirituality, if we do not criticize but encourage it, tomorrow if we want to go to mass in the city we will have to ask to be hosted by an enterprise. It will be a secular and highly spiritual kind of mass, it will be offered to us for free. And we shall give thanks for it.

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